Exhibitions/ The Yuan Revolution

The Yuan Revolution: Art and Dynastic Change

August 21, 2010–January 9, 2011
Exhibitions are free with Museum admission.

Exhibition Overview

Organized to complement the Museum's major loan exhibition The World of Khubilai Khan: Chinese Art in the Yuan Dynasty, this installation in the Museum's permanent galleries for Chinese painting and calligraphy traces the momentous stylistic transformation in painting and calligraphy that began under Mongol rule and culminated in the literati traditions of the early Ming. The exhibit showcases some seventy Yuan and early Ming works of art from New York–area private and public collections.

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In the years immediately following the Mongol conquest, many former Song officials remained loyal to the fallen dynasty and lived in self-enforced retirement as yimin, or "leftover subjects." Expressing their dissent through veiled references in their art, the literati (wenren) produced work that was deeply autobiographical; it is this self-referential aspect of painting that demarcates a new threshold in Chinese art.

Young officials who had never served under the Song also struggled with the harsh new political hierarchy imposed by Mongol rule. Civil service examinations, the traditional means for recruiting talent into the government, were discontinued after 1234 in the north and after 1272 in the south, leaving most of China's educated elite disenfranchised. As a group, the literati were largely ignored by the Mongols; those few who did enter government service often received only minor appointments, as teachers or low-level clerks. The southern Chinese, having resisted the Mongol invasion the longest, faced systematic discrimination, including inequitable quotas on the examination system when it was reinstated in 1313. Confronted with absolutist policies and prejudicial treatment, many southern scholars withdrew from politics and lived in humbled circumstances or semiretirement—a lifestyle that afforded them the time to pursue self-cultivation and self-expression through the arts.

The artist who most forcefully articulated a new approach to painting and calligraphy was Zhao Mengfu (1254–1322), the principal architect of the Yuan renaissance. His transformation of these two art forms was the result of personal struggle: epitomizing the plight of Chinese scholars living through dynastic change, Zhao agonized over whether to retire out of loyalty to the fallen Song or to help shape policy through service under the conquering Yuan. He thereafter espoused the ideal of "reclusion at court," becoming a government official but detaching himself from political intrigue and maintaining the moral purity of a hermit. This tension between participation and reclusion defined Zhao's career and would find its clearest expression in his artistic pursuits, through which he sought to make known his state of mind and lofty moral purpose.

Zhao identified with the scholar-officials of the Northern Song and their intertwined traditions of poetry, painting, and calligraphy, and he sought to incorporate into his own work the orthodox canon of the literati artists. His most calligraphic works, of rocks, orchids, and bamboo, emulate the "ink plays" of the poet-statesman Su Shi (1037–1101). Seeking to convey a "spirit of antiquity" (guyi) yet mindful of Su Shi's condemnation of "form-likeness," Zhao did not merely imitate past models but reinterpreted them, distilling and abstracting their imagery while asserting the equivalence of painting and calligraphy through calligraphic brushwork and the placement of inscriptions on the picture surface. By these means, Zhao transformed his archaic sources, turning both style and content into vehicles for self-expression.

The reunification of China in 1279 brought together two distinct regional cultures. Under the Jin and early Mongol occupation, North China, largely isolated from the philosophical, literary, and artistic developments taking place in the south, continued the traditions of the Northern Song, which would eventually become a major source of inspiration for early Yuan painters living in South China.

Landscape painters favored the evocative style of Li Cheng (919–967) and his eleventh-century disciple Guo Xi, which set mountains, old trees, and wintry groves against expansive panoramic backdrops. Such imagery could be interpreted in very different ways. Guo Xi likened a tall mountain flanked by lesser hills to an emperor presiding over a well-ordered state. Similarly, a pine tree with widespread boughs might be read as a princely gentleman extending his benevolence over the rest of the forest. Consequently, during the Yuan, many of these so-called Li-Guo paintings were made as tributes to upstanding government officials. But isolated trees, especially those in a wintry setting, might be understood as emblems of the scholar-recluse, or of likeminded individuals who chose to remain aloof from the "dusty world" of politics. Song loyalists and scholar-artists living in voluntary retirement often painted this subject as a statement of their determination to maintain their integrity and independence.

Contrary to these symbolically charged landscapes were the precisely executed architectural renderings, or "ruled-line paintings," that were particularly favored at the Yuan court. This specialized genre, which focused on intricately detailed representations of buildings, boats, and other structures, was practiced primarily by professional painters and valued as a display of virtuosic brushwork.

During the Yuan dynasty, Mongol rulers adopted Tibetan Buddhism as the official state religion. Beyond the capital, however, several long-established East Asian sects—Pure Land, Tiantai, and Chan (Zen in Japanese)—remained the dominant forms of Buddhism among native Chinese. The Pure Land School promised rebirth in the paradise of the Buddha Amitabha; the Tiantai School focused on visualizing the Buddha-nature in all things; and the Chan sect emphasized meditation as the primary means for achieving enlightenment.

By the fourteenth century these sects shared a number of iconographic images, including various manifestations of Guanyin (or Avalokiteshvara), the Bodhisattva of Compassion; and the luohans (or arhats), the spiritual disciples of the Buddha Sakyamuni who served as guardians of the faith. In South China these subjects were painted either in the style of the Song Imperial Painting Academy—that is, large in scale, in mineral colors on silk, and with an emphasis on meticulous execution and detail—or according to another tradition associated mainly with Chan practice. This second style is characterized by intimately scaled works executed with abbreviated, calligraphic brushstrokes in monochrome ink on paper. Few of these paintings survive in China; nearly all extant examples were taken out of the country by Japanese monks and are now preserved in Japanese temples.

An important example of North Chinese painting, the large mural dedicated to the Buddha of Medicine Bhaishajyaguru (ca. 1319), is on view in the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (Gallery 206) at the entrance to the Museum's Asian Art wing.

By the 1340s, China under the Mongols was descending into anarchy. Bloody struggles for succession and fiscal corruption weakened the government and led to widespread uprisings and open rebellion. Distinguished families withdrew into the countryside to escape rapacious tax collectors, bandits, or contending armies, while many dedicated Chinese officials transferred their support to rebel causes until, in 1368, Zhu Yuanzhang emerged victorious and proclaimed himself the first emperor of the Ming dynasty.

This era of political turmoil fostered one of China's most flourishing periods of artistic expression. Literati painters found inspiration in the orderly landscape paintings of tenth-century scholar-recluses, who several centuries earlier had retreated into the mountains to escape the chaotic conclusion of the Tang era. In the fourteenth century, these visions become far more introverted and personal as scholars lost faith in the immutability of nature. Yuan mountainscapes represent the private dwelling of the artist—a temporary haven where he could lodge his emotions.

On another level, works of art functioned as an important means of communication, becoming part of the intricate web that bound cultivated men together. Whether created in appreciation for a hospitable host, to celebrate a literary gathering, or to commemorate the departure of a colleague, these paintings used encoded imagery—a pair of trees, a bamboo and rock, a secluded dwelling in the mountains—to convey notions of friendship or shared ideals. Forging such bonds was particularly important during the Yuan dynasty, as Mongol rulers generally did not esteem learning and scholars were forced to survive in "impoverished reclusion." At such a time, cultural bonds counted for more than political connections, and a man's literary and artistic accomplishments were more important than his rank in establishing his status.

Following a century of Mongol domination, the Chinese regained control of the empire under the leadership of Zhu Yuanzhang, a rebel of peasant origins who founded the Ming dynasty (1368–1644). Zhu ruled China as the Hongwu emperor from 1368 to 1398. Basing his capital in Nanjing (it moved to Beijing in 1421), he began to rebuild the central bureaucracy, reinstate imperial institutions, and initiate policies of political and cultural expansion.

But the first Ming emperor's humble background left him deeply suspicious of the scholar-gentry class, particularly those living in the region around Suzhou, which had been the seat of power of a rival warlord. As the aging emperor became more despotic, literati artists were executed or imprisoned in increasing numbers, making government service risky. As a result, many scholar-officials either declined appointments or found reasons to retire. Such men found inspiration in the reclusive imagery and emotive brush styles of the late Yuan masters.

Both Song Ke (1327–1386) and Wang Fu (1362–1416), the two artists featured in this gallery, served in the early Ming government. Song was originally recruited to be a calligrapher-in-waiting in the capital but was later transferred to a minor post in western Shaanxi Province, where he died. Wang Fu, who went to Nanjing about 1378 to seek employment, was subsequently banished for twenty years to a frontier post near Datong, Shanxi Province. Only with the accession of the Yongle emperor in 1403 was Wang again recruited to a post in the capital. Both artists explored and extended artistic styles developed during the preceding Yuan dynasty.

After the fall of Suzhou in 1367 to the forces of Zhu Yuanzhang, the future first emperor of the Ming dynasty, nearly a century would elapse before that region, known as Wu, emerged as the Ming cultural capital. The artist responsible for what would become known as the Wu School of painters was Shen Zhou (1427–1509). Born to a family of wealthy landowners, Shen did not enter the civil service, as was customary for men of his standing. Instead, he devoted himself to self-cultivation and the arts. He systematically studied the four late Yuan masters—Huang Gongwang, Wu Zhen, Ni Zan, and Wang Meng—distilling their diverse idioms into simplified sets of calligraphic conventions that could be shaped into his own personal style.

Shen's most important disciple was Wen Zhengming (1470–1559). The son of a scholar-official of modest means, Wen spent most of his life in Suzhou, where he relied on his art to support himself. He modeled his calligraphy on that of Zhao Mengfu and his painting on that of the four late Yuan masters. While both artists derived inspiration from the same sources, Shen's paintings are exuberant and bold in execution—an approach that was elaborated upon by Xie Shichen—while Wen's are more meticulous and restrained.